By Bisi Lawrence
There was a time when music was very much a part of the peoples’ lives in Lagos. I guess it very much still is. Since people dance to music and there is still a lot of dancing going on, the sound of music is still heard all over the place.
But the motion has borrowed some frenetic movement from the spirit of the times or, as they would term it, zeitgeist. The traditions have been altered by the passage of time and its ever changing moods and motivations. For some people who are advanced in years, it is almost like living in a new territory where you are, all the same, a native.
The pace or rhythm is much quicker these days, the lyrics are much harsher, and in some cases, the melody is non-existent. The permissive elements of the so-called modern times are spread all over the rendition.
One seeks to protect the little ones from too much exposure to the language. And the raucous tones offend the refinements with which one was brought up in the past. It all sums up to a sad reflection of the receding age which was beautiful and decent. It was not that there were no songs that were composed off-key even in those days, but they were few and had no real influence on the environment and the general way of life.
The music in those days was performed mainly ‘outdoors’.
There was a preponderance of guitar bands to supplement the local output which usually comprised an ensemble of drums behind a rich vocal output rendered in the particular harmonic culture of the locality. This was true, and is still true, throughout Nigeria. While the band could play in any setting like within or outside a compound, it was all quite usual to find bands which played from one place to another within the town, accompanying a celebrant or canvassing for patronage on their own.
It was when they were engaged on a spree that they discharged themselves of materials that were rude in content or laudatory in nature.
First let us look at the “praise songs” which were very popular some decades — say, two or three—ago. In the North, Mamman Shatar was the “king”.
It was not unusual for a highly-placed citizen to be so carried away by his words of praise that he would divest himself of his rich robe and throw it on the musician’s back in appreciation and as a token of high approval. Of course, commendation was also shown by way of hard cash. In Yorubaland, it was the custom to “stamp” the coins which were in use in those days, on the forehead of the musician.
Dancers were also appreciated in like manner. Currency notes, of course, soon took over as the mark of reward for a delightful song of praise. But so it was also in the East where Okonkwo Adigwe endeared himself with scores of personalities with his tuneful melodies carefully composed in their praise. So it also went on through other parts of the country. And a jolly good time was had by all during family ceremonies or on other civic occasions.
A fascinating aspect of the music of this period is the record it made of some of the outstanding social events which occurred like, the introduction of the “one-way” system of urban traffic which started in Lagos in the early 40s, and some political events in the early days of our emergence from colonial rule. That was in the pre-independence era when the NCNC , the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroun, faced the NYM, the Nigeria Youth Movement, squarely in the politics of the Southern part of the country.
Those were the days when very little premium was placed on one’s ethnic origin, and an Igbo man, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, was elected as the Deputy Mayor of Lagos.
A juju song which derided the losing party was made about it, and it became one of the hits of the day.
But there were indeed some unedifying songs of the period which also became hits. One of them was produced by the late maestro, Bobby Benson. A country like Nigeria which neglects various nuggets of its history hardly deserves the titanic image of Bobby in the pantheon of her social giants.
He was the father of Nigeria’s popular music. His style of performance spawned a dynasty of popular music maestros that have outlasted half-a-century.
He created the modern trend of music-hall performance in Nigeria and, over a considerable period, his band consisted of virtually all the future band leaders of Nigeria’s popular music –Victor Olaiya, Zeal Onyia, Bala Miller, Roy Chicago, Babyface Paul, Eleazar Arinze, and a number of others whose names my memory has failed to retain through the years. He was not only a bandleader beyond compare, he was a fierce competitor.
He faced down all rivals even to the extent of physical combat. But surrounding it all was a quantum of impish humour which made Bobby very attractive to his fans. I am certain that even our venerable laureate, Wole Soyinka, will forgive my mentioning that he collaborated with Bobby in one of his naughty numbers of the day, which became an evergreen hit.
His favourite instrument was the guitar which he had taught himself to play, just as he had learned the saxophone and drums unaided. In fact, I have been inspired to write this piece by my running into his son, Tony, a chip of the old block, recently.
A fine multi-instrumental musician in his own right, Tony has carved niche for himself away from “the beaten path” of contemporary pop. He plays a mixture of jazz and popular beat which makes his sound distinctive and original. Listening to him was like walking by still waters.
It was so refreshing and so cool. It had what one might describe as rich musical content — tone and texture and professional technique. Unfortunately, that is more than what could be said for the “showmanship” music which is all over the pop world in Nigeria these days.
A lady recently remarked, in reference to the type of music going the rounds, that it all seems “to be in hurry, but going nowhere”. I advised her to take a trip to the bank.
These young “guys” are making the kind of money that makes you stop counting. And they know what to do with it — or at least, what they want to do with it: trendy automobiles; trendy clothes; trendy houses; trendy commercial undertakings. They all go for trendy pursuits, and you cannot fault them for that.
A considerable number of them are even graduates of good universities, so it is not like we are talking about a bunch of morons here. And they are leaving their mark on the society too. Or could we say it might be the society that has left, or is leaving its mark on them?
What impact is the prevailing environment leaving on our way of life, anyway? Is it compounded of a sense of honour and rectitude? Surely, that cannot be said about what is happening on the political scene: the fabric of our political party system is virtually in shreds; while one party seems to be groping for vibrant leadership, the other has gone hydra-headed.
Neither could we say the elements of our governance are grounded on honesty and propriety; the EFCC now has its hands full and dripping in the filth of its investigations into the crimes committed by officialdom.
On the social stage, our morals give little credit to the sterling quality of our various cultures which are fragrant with high principles of age-old traditions; see the outrageous manner in which our womenfolk expose their bodies in public these days, all in the name of trendiness.
But there is no reason to whine or complain. Every nation gets the government what it deserves. Every society deserves the music it gets.